Why We Inflate Grades

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made headlines recently by announcing a plan to fight grade inflation: all grades received will be contextualized on student transcripts, allowing graduate schools and potential employers to see grade distributions for each course and thus to determine just how much value to attach to those ever-prevalent As and Bs. This move is the latest in a series of attacks on what is perceived by many (rightly) to be an epidemic in higher education today, particularly among those institutions that seem to do well in the national rankings.

Student anxiety about such policies is understandable. Graduating seniors are naturally concerned about their competitiveness during difficult economic times, while juniors and seniors worry that they may be passed up for fellowships, summer programs, or other academic opportunities on account of a lowered grade-point average.

Professors, too, have their concerns about grade deflation; we not only care about our students’ successes but also about the implications of anti-inflation policies on our own careers. While institutions are increasingly taking measures to combat grade inflation, there are several key pressures faculty members face when assigning grades, and these may cause us to feel uneasy or hesitant about immediately subscribing to a strict regimen of grade deflation. These pressures in no way excuse or minimize the ethical implications of grade inflation, nor do I seek to undermine the efforts of those striving to curtail what is indeed a significant and widespread problem in higher education today. My purpose is only to suggest some of the underlying causes of this epidemic from a faculty perspective; to point out some of the pressures faculty face as they assign their students grades. These pressures, as I see it, come from three primary sources:

Pressure from students: Most professors are experienced in the familiar end-of-semester scene in which a student comes to office hours to argue for a higher grade. Such discussions often involve a student’s disputation of minutiae from past exams, papers, and assignments, all in the hope of gaining a point or two here and there and thus retroactively improving his or her grade. Such discussions can be quite time-consuming, and they often come at the busiest time of the semester, thus bringing with them the temptation to do whatever it takes to close the matter and move along. There may also be a nagging fear that minor grading errors have indeed been made and that the student should be given the benefit of the doubt. With ever-increasing college costs and the inevitable sense of student entitlement and consumerism that follow, such discussions are becoming all too common. and are not always limited to the end of the semester. Even more important, many faculty members dread and even fear the negative classroom atmosphere that often results from giving students "bad" grades (i.e.. C or below, though even a B fits this category for many), particularly in courses dependent on student discussion and participation, such as a seminar or a foreign language class.

Pressure from administrators: Success with student evaluations is a career necessity, whether one is a young scholar seeking the elusive Elysium of tenure or one belongs to that now-majority of faculty members who teach part-time or on an adjunct basis and are dependent on positive student evaluations for reappointment. At teaching-intensive colleges and universities, in particular, student evaluations are often of paramount importance, and faculty members must do what they can to keep their customers happy. Many faculty members feel, and numerous studies seem to suggest, that generous grade distributions correspond to positive teaching evaluations, so many faculty members, under pressure from administrators to produce good evaluations, feel a temptation to inflate grades to secure their own livelihoods. Since administrators usually have neither the time nor the expertise to make independent evaluations of a professor’s teaching ability (imagine a dean with both the leisure and the proficiency to sit in on and evaluate in the same semester both a Russian literature course and an advanced macroeconomics course, without having done any of the previous coursework...) they must rely heavily on student descriptions of what goes on in the classroom, descriptions that are often contradictory and that unfortunately do not always cohere.

Pressure from colleagues: Some faculty who wish to curb grade inflation may feel that they are the only ones fighting the problem. If everyone else is giving out inflated grades, why should they be the ones to stand alone, only to incur the displeasure of students who may be confused by inconsistent standards? As college freshmen arrive on campus increasingly unprepared for college work, faculty members, inheriting a problem passed on to them by their colleagues in secondary education, often have the difficult task of trying to determine reasonable standards of achievement. It takes effort and planning for faculty to balance their professional responsibilities to both their respective disciplines and to their students’ positive academic experience. In an era where budget cuts affect most severely those departments and programs with low enrollments, no one wants to lose the bidding war for students, and many professors, particularly those in vulnerable fields, fear that a "strict constructionist" approach to grade deflation may cost them student interest and consequently much-needed institutional support, both of which risk being redistributed to more favored colleagues. Furthermore, the seemingly ubiquitous nature of grade inflation may simplify the ethical quandaries involved: if everyone understands that grades are being unfairly inflated, then there may, in fact, be no unfairness involved at all, since the very transparency of grade inflation thus removes any sense of deception that may linger in our minds.

There is a final pressure to grade inflate, and it comes from ourselves. It may be the disquieting feeling that our own efforts in the classroom have sometimes been inadequate, that poor student performance reflects poor preparation or teaching on our part, and that grades must be inflated to compensate for our failings. It may come from the difficulties inherent in assigning grades to elusive and ultimately unquantifiable phenomena such as class participation, essays, student presentations, and the like. In such cases, grade inflation ceases to function as a lazy or disinterested tool for maintaining steady waters; it becomes, instead, a corrective measure seeking to make restitution for our own perceived shortcomings.

If we are honest with ourselves about the pressures we face as we engage in what is one of our profession’s most unavoidable and routine tasks — assigning grades — we can begin to think seriously about the part all of us play in inflating grades. Examining the underlying causes of why we grade-inflate is the beginning of doing something serious about it.

Peter Eubanks is assistant professor of French at James Madison University.

Foursquare takes aim at college campuses

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Some colleges think they can increase students' engagement with Foursquare, a popular location-based site. Are they right?

Starting From Scratch


Sometimes just revising a course isn't enough, writes Rob Weir.


Making Ethnic Studies Compute

Smart Title: 

Cal State San Marcos professor explains how she used online mapping tools to help students connect social research to their own personal narratives.

Academics Defending Teachers

K-12 education has been consuming a great deal of of our political attention of late. There have been series of articles in most newspapers and national opinion magazines in the past few months and lots of discussion on cable news channels. Schools across the nation are dealing with body-blow budget cuts, the demands of No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, as well as numerous changes in state regulations. Add to this the outright assault --- and there is other way to describe it -- on teachers by many of the nation’s governors and mayors.

Teachers have become, for lack of a better work, the enemy. Teachers are the problem.

Charter schools, high-stakes testing, and alternative teacher training programs are the new normal. Teachers, and especially their unions (both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) are now widely seen as obstacles to reform. The teacher unions are holding back change and hurting our kids -- and teachers are overpaid for a job with summers off, or so the assault goes.

A cover story last year in the Sunday's New York Times Magazine depicts a circle of national reformers who have vilified the teachers’ unions and see collective bargaining as the clear enemy -- previewing what happened in Wisconsin by a few months. How did we get here? When did teachers become the main problem of the K-12 educational system? There have always been problem teachers (we have either had one ourselves or have children who have). But by most evidence, teachers by and large are good, dedicated and caring professionals who work hard at a very difficult job.

It has to stink to be a teacher these days, especially one in an underperforming urban district. Mandated testing, lack of resources and precarious job security are constant. Teachers in many states are waiting for pink slips, watching state budgets and hoping for the best.

Pundits are demanding that tenure be abolished and the workday lengthened. Some are also arguing that we need to privatize the entire system or blow it up completely. I wonder at times, as I watch education students: who would want to be a teacher in all of this mess? As I look at the future teachers at my own institution, my answer is: some of the best and brightest minds of their generation, who have worked hard to master the skills necessary to become great teachers. They want to see improvement and change and they know it will not be easy, as they will sacrifice much in the process. But, for them it will all be worth it if they reach just that one kid.

Isn’t that what we want in teachers? As a parent of school-aged children, I know it is what I want. All the reformers argue they want the best teachers to enter teaching. But the evidence shows most teachers last less than five years, driven out, no doubt, by this unrelenting assault.

What is missing from this conversation is a historically informed understanding of teaching. Teachers were for many, many years underpaid, and the teaching profession anything but professional. In the 20th century, teachers marched to professionalization, raising standards and depoliticizing the schools -- and with that, they improved education and, yes, their own economic situations, too. And it was the nation’s colleges and universities who in many ways spearheaded this effort.

And yet, today, we in higher education are silent as teaching is assaulted.

We stand at a crossroads, and it is time that academics, those of us privileged enough to be based in universities, step up to defend the institution of education and those professionals who have dedicated their lives to it. We cannot remain silent spectators. Speaking up is the right thing to do.

But there is also a selfish reason to do so. In the public mind, there is a seamless educational system. And K-12 budgets and tenure are tied to the attacks on higher education. We cannot selectively enter the fray only when it affects us, as the recent Wisconsin flap involving the esteemed historian William Cronon suggests. We need to see these episodes as interconnected and, more importantly, we need to see a continuum of educators. The nation’s teachers are and were our students. An attack on them is a direct attack on what we do and how we do it.

In addition, most teachers are our former students and alumni. They represent the best of our institutions and are being attacked, and their education is being devalued -- our education is being devalued. As educators who care about our students (both past and present), we need to step into the void both physically and intellectually.

Diane Ravitch, in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, has traced the decline in education to the push to make teachers mere functionaries (deprofessionalization). Ravitch, as many know, had formally been a cheerleader and active policy wonk pushing for many of these policies as George H.W. Bush’s under secretary of education. In her new book she does a complete about-face.

Ravitch worries rightly about what we lost: We have traded curriculum for testing and lost the joy in learning. She calls for a return to a time when teachers were intellectuals, informed professionals, and where there was a public consensus on the importance of public education. In short, she asks us to return to a time when teachers passionate about their mission and knowledgeable about their subject could transform lives. And here is where we need to help.

As university-based educators, we must see K-12 teachers as allies in education. We need to defend education as both art and science and seek creative solutions to improve learning. We all recognize the issues and problems in the educational system. But rather than continue to complain about the quality of the incoming freshman class, we need to partner with local school districts to help improve the educational system. Now is not the time to watch and wait, but to take bold action. But we will only be successful if we see K-12 teachers as partners, and not just junior partners.

In the end, what is at stake is not just K-12 schools but our nation’s democratic future. Ravitch is right: we have lost faith in education as a social and economic necessity. But as people with a platform -- as professors still are in their communities -- we need to remind the public why education matters. We have access to editorial pages, community newspapers, forums, etc. We need to take advantage of our privilege to reform education and reposition teachers. Without it, we are doomed to continued failing schools, whole-scale disinvestment in education and a permanent underclass.

And what will all this mean for universities? It doesn’t look good: underprepared students; budget cuts; the adjunctification and deprofessionalization of the professoriate, to name a few. So we can either step up and deal with it now, or wait till it knocks on our door next. And I already hear the footsteps.

Richard Greenwald is professor of history and social sciences and dean at St. Joseph’s College, in New York City. He is the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works (Bloomsbury Press).

Who Is Really Adrift?

Imagine that, instead of a college education as we now know it, we substituted a test-preparation course of study such as those offered by companies that prepare students for the SAT, ACT, and similar tests. The rationale for this course of study would be that the purpose of a college education is to improve performance on narrow cognitive assessments such as these. From this point of view, it makes sense that we cut to the chase. Instead of students studying English, history, mathematics, or science, they rather will prepare to do better on more advanced versions of the narrow cognitive tests used for college admissions. If the goal is to improve scores, why not teach directly to the tests?

When the goal is posed this way, few people probably would accept the substitution of test preparation for a genuine college education. It seems ill-advised. Yet the dominant trends in assessing learning in college might lead one to believe that, whatever educators may think, some of them act, perhaps inadvertently, as though this substitution of test-preparation for education would be a good idea. Which is to say: Oops, we already are moving in this direction!

Partially in response to pressure on the academy for accountability from the Spellings Commission, hundreds of institutions and entire state systems of higher education now assess learning in college via a standardized test, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), the ETS Proficiency Profile (ETS-PP, formerly the MAPP), or the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP -- an ACT product). The CLA is intended to measure critical-thinking skills. The ETS-PP measures skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and mathematics in the context of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The CAAP has modules measuring reading, writing skills, writing essay, mathematics, science, and critical thinking.

These are all rather valid and reliable tests, insofar as they go, but they are narrow in what they measure. They achieve their reliability in part because they focus their assessments so narrowly. (So-called “internal-consistency reliability” rises to the extent that a test narrowly measures just a single construct.) So psychometrically, the tests are reasonably good ones. But the issue discussed here is not how “good” the tests are, but rather, how well they are used--whether they have sufficient breadth adequately to serve as measures of learning in college.

Tests such as the CLA, ETS-PP, and CAAP measure skills similar to those measured by the SAT or ACT and are highly correlated with these tests. Moreover, data collected by the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) show the CLA, ETS-PP, and CAAP to be very highly correlated with each other. Other research by Douglas Detterman and his colleagues has shown that tests such as the SAT and ACT are highly correlated with IQ, meaning that, in the end, all these tests largely measure the same thing -- what psychologists call “general ability,” or g. What then can we conclude from scores on such tests?

A recent book, Academically Adrift, concludes that students learn frightfully little in college. Its conclusion is based in large part upon small or nonexistent gains on the CLA. The authors of the book point out several important areas of genuine concern, such as lack of study time and writing experience on the part of college students. These worrying areas of concern should not be ignored. But the book’s conclusion that higher education is “academically adrift” does not fully follow from its primary data. Although the authors recognize some of the limitations of their data, these limitations may not be fully recognized by readers and certainly have not been appreciated by reviewers. What is missing?

According to a carefully researched report recently released by the Lumina Foundation, in which is presented a “degree qualifications profile,” there are five areas in which college students should make demonstrable progress while in college: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; intellectual skills; applied learning; and civic learning. Lumina further lists five intellectual skills: analytic inquiry, use of information resources, engaging diverse perspectives, quantitative fluency, and communication fluency. But one could consider an even more diverse set of kinds of intellectual skills. Consider four important kinds of thinking:

  • Analytical thinking. The tests measure reasonably well analytical (or critical) thinking, somewhat narrowly defined. This kind of thinking is important in being able to analyze an argument, evaluate an article, or compare and contrast two ideas. Hence it is quite proper that the tests should measure this kind of thinking.
  • Creative thinking. We as college teachers and administrators want students to learn not only to analyze and evaluate what they read, but also to go beyond what they read — to think creatively. Indeed, often our biggest complaint is that students have trouble getting beyond the book. Tests such as the CLA do not measure creative thinking.
  • Practical thinking. Students can learn in a way that produces good test results but then find themselves unable to use what they learn in practical settings. They could get an A in Spanish but be unable to speak the language; or an A in statistics but be unable to analyze their own data; or an A in English or history but be unable to persuade people to take their ideas about world events seriously. Tests such as the CLA do not measure practical thinking. Although the CLA uses scenarios that come from everyday life, it does not use scenarios from the students’ everyday lives, so the problems are, to the students, nevertheless relative abstractions.
  • Wise and ethical thinking. Students need not only to acquire a knowledge base, but also learn how to direct this knowledge base in an ethical way toward a common good — one that balances the student’s own interests with other people’s interests and larger interests, over the long as well as short terms. Tests such as the CLA do not measure wise or ethical thinking.

The importance of these four kinds of thinking has been well established through research on successful functioning in real world educational and employment contexts. Individuals need creative thinking to generate new ideas, analytical thinking to ascertain whether their ideas are good ideas, practical thinking to implement their ideas and convince others of their value, and wise and ethical thinking to ensure that their ideas help to achieve a common good.

The CLA — the measure used to establish the findings presented in Academically Adrift -- at best measures one fourth of these essential intellectual skills. But it measures only a minuscule portion of the total range of outcomes highlighted in the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile.

Creators of tests such as the CLA view themselves as assessing critical-thinking skills in serious contexts. But they are not the students’ real-world contexts, and moreover, they are not the rich contexts in which students are taught to think in the academic disciplines they study. The reason that students "major" in a discipline is not just to learn the content knowledge of that discipline but also to learn to think deeply in the context of that discipline: How, for example, would a physicist, or sociologist, or historian, or educator, or business executive think about a particular problem? Moreover, the Lumina Degree Profile turns a spotlight on the importance of integrating knowledge across multiple disciplines and multiple sites of learning — informal as well as formal.

One might argue that, in the first two years, most students do not yet major in any discipline. Even for those students who take two years of general education courses in multiple areas of study, however, the goal is to steep students in rich intellectual disciplines and their modes of inquiry. But the thinking measured by the CLA and similar cognitive tests pays no attention to the rich conceptual knowledge fostered in the disciplines.

Moreover, although we like to think that the main agenda of college is for students to learn formal disciplinary knowledge and to think with it, arguably, the agenda is as much for them to learn tacit knowledge — to learn the ropes, so to speak. Tacit knowledge is procedural. It deals with how you manage yourself so as to accomplish your goals and stay out of trouble, how you form relationships with people and network effectively, how and from whom you seek help when you need it, how you decide whom you can trust and of whom you should be suspicious, how you meet the demands of an organization (collegiate or otherwise) while maintaining a meaningful life, and so forth. These outcomes are largely the result of learning outside the classroom; so really, all those activities outside the classroom are not necessarily a waste of time or even time ill-spent. The Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile underscores the role that informal learning plays in developing essential competencies. But these skills are not measured by the CLA and its sister tests.

Of course, some will question whether the Lumina Foundation guidelines provide any kind of reasonable framework. But the leading organization for the promotion of the liberal arts in the United States, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, proposes through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative the following critical areas of student progress: knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world; intellectual and practical skills; teamwork and problem solving; personal and social responsibility; and integrative and applied learning. These so-called “essential learning outcomes,” developed through a broad dialogue with the higher education community and with employers, are similar to those of the Lumina Foundation’s DP. Indeed, its similarity to the LEAP essential-learning outcomes is one of the strengths of the Lumina framework.

This nation made a serious mistake in introducing well-intentioned but poorly executed legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, which has turned many of our elementary and secondary schools into glorified test-preparation centers. Do we dare now do the same for colleges? Do we really want to make preparation for narrowly conceived cognitive tests the primary goal of a college education? Or do we want to broaden assessments, such as performances and portfolios, perhaps in addition to the narrower assessments? If we limit ourselves to narrow measures, we can say good-bye to our hopes to develop an internationally competitive, creative and ethical society. We instead can say hello to creating a nation of excellent test-takers who will shine, but only in some dystopian world in which achieving high scores on tests is the measure of one’s contribution to society.

Ultimately, the goal of college education is to produce the active citizens and positive leaders of tomorrow — people who will make the world a better place. Narrow tests of cognitive skills do not measure the creative, practical, and wisdom-based and ethical skills that leaders need to succeed. We can and truly must assess much more broadly.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, and a member of the board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The views expressed in the essay are entirely his own.

Creating the Perfect Instructor

Smart Title: 

Researchers at British university determine which characteristics go into a professor who will be loved by students.

Code Warrior

Smart Title: 

A San Jose State University student posted his homework online, hoping to show off his code writing skills. When his prof balked, the student fought and San Jose backed him.

Lessons Learned, Now That It's Over

On a personal note: My students this semester knew I was writing about my experience teaching while serving as a college president. Several times as we approached the end of the term, I shared with them that I had learned a lot this semester and would miss them. One student in the class expressed surprise -- he had not thought about my learning during the semester. This last column is an effort to explain something about the co-learning that transpired. In a sense, this is a “thank-you” note to my students.


They say that if you really want to learn something, teach it. Even though I have now led an institution of higher education for almost three years, leadership was not a subject I studied in any systemized way. Perhaps I chose, consciously or not, to teach a course in leadership and gender because I wanted and needed to learn more about leadership.

The old saw is right. I did learn. What follows are three of the many lessons learned.

Lesson One: Reassess Regularly

We undertook an exercise on the first day of class in which students wrote on index cards the three essential qualities they thought were most important for successful leaders to possess. They then sealed the cards in envelopes addressed to themselves. I did the exercise with them.

My start of the semester three words were: Problem Solver, Inspirational and Open (defined as flexible).

Our last class involved revisiting the envelopes and considering whether now, after all the readings and conversations and exercises, we would change the initial words chosen and select others to replace them and if so, why. At the end of the semester, I did not even recall my chosen words from the first day of class.

The majority of the class wanted to change at least one or more of the initially chosen three words. I was among those who wanted to change two completely and one partially.

My new three end-of-semester words were: Creativity, Strength, and Openness (defined as capacity to grow and change).

What does that alteration in word choice say about what I learned?

I believe it signals that, because of the course and my conversations with students, I was regularly reflecting on what it takes to lead, particularly in a changing world. It suggests that my approach to leading is evolving. I would hope that if I were to complete the same exercise a year or two from now, I still might change some of the words. Leadership is not easy; neither is reflecting honestly about it.

Previous Installments:
What Was I Thinking?, March 16
A President Reenters the Classroom. Why?, January 23

I remember a program I attended decades ago when I was a new law professor. David Vernon, a senior and much beloved law professor at the University of Iowa, was charged with speaking to us about our prospective scholarship. He said something that has stayed with me: Whatever you write now, no matter how good you think it is, you should re-examine it 25 years from now and if you have not changed your mind about that early piece you wrote, you have not grown sufficiently as a scholar.

Not bad advice for professors and presidents: one’s thinking really does change over time, and it is not a reflection of lack of quality at the beginning.

Lesson Two: Mentors Reside In Unexpected Places

I recently had to write remarks for Commencement. It is something I like to do but I was struggling to find the right way to explain what it means to succeed and how we should define and then measure success in our ever-so-complicated world. I was searching for some pithy words written by a famous person, some insights, some something that would provide new graduates with guidance.

At this same point in time, I was grading exams. One of the students wrote about success as part of her final exam answer, and she referenced words from an interview she had conducted earlier in the semester as part of the class. The person interviewed was a Southern Vermont College Trustee.

Inspiration struck: At Commencement, I would use the ideas spoken by an SVC trustee and written by a graduating SVC student. The student and trustee had become, in essence, my teachers. Another example of co-learning. The quoted trustee’s words were:

“I believe we need to encourage innovation and risk-taking; they are imperative to success. You cannot only look toward well-known leaders for great ideas. You can generate them yourself. In addition to taking risks, you cannot be afraid of failure. It is important to take chances, be brave and have confidence in your beliefs.”

The only thing I added to the student/trustee message in my remarks was that I knew our students could carry out these important tenets; I knew it based on my personal knowledge of them, knowledge gained as their professor.

This reinforced for me the obvious point that leaders always need mentors but it also gave me a new twist: sometimes leaders find unlikely mentors in unexpected places -- including a classroom.

Lesson Three: Be bold.

As a professor, I had always been puzzled by exams and was concerned on two fronts. First, I wondered whether any exam I wrote was actually a good measure of the learning I wanted students to do during the semester. Second, I thought that the studying for the exam was often more important than the exam itself. While teaching law, I fantasized about having 100 first year law students enter an exam room and read something like this when they opened their exam:

There will be no exam in this course. You have studied for the exam and that is what counts. Thank you for working hard to master the material we covered this semester. I enjoyed teaching you. I have two hopes: I hope you learned more than you expected, and I hope that what you learned stays with you as you enter your chosen profession.

Of course, I never did that -- for lots of reasons. Law schools tend to be pretty conservative places. There is often no graded work during the semester and so no way to give any grade other than through a final exam. I suppose, too, that some of the more competitive students might have had their feathers ruffled -- perhaps with good cause.

But the real reason I never did this was that I was not daring enough.

When it came time to write my take-home exam for my course this semester, I thought that if there ever were a time to be daring, it was now. So, I gave an exam of the sort I wished I had been able to take as a student: I gave the students identical gray bags, each filled with five distinct objects, and I presented them with a set of problems involving a stodgy clothing manufacturer that was in financial trouble and asked them to solve the problems using the items in the bag as inspiration. One student suggested creating a line of hip baby bunting inspired by the large brass safety pin that was in the gray bag and a line of doggy duds inspired by the spotted Dalmatian-like thread that was also in the bag. Not bad.

That exam experience made me appreciate that I cannot be afraid to try something out-of-the box as a president. If there ever were a time when being daring was possible, it is as a leader.

I appreciate that it is easy to take the opposite approach -- to be conservative and even timid, particularly in tough economic times. But, as the exam I gave my students showed me, leadership is about being bold and it took teaching a course on leadership to embrace that reality more fully.


I will not be teaching a course during the 2009-10 academic year. It is not because the experience was unmemorable or unproductive. It was both enjoyable and productive, and judging from the course evaluations, the students had similar positive experiences.

Instead, I will teach without a formal classroom, as part of what I do every day. That way, I won’t have the preparation struggles I experienced this past semester; I won’t need to grade papers throughout the semester and exams at the end; I won’t be conflicted about competing events and scheduling snafus.

That said, I plan on remembering the exam that I always wanted to give as a professor and the one I actually did give as a president.

That should keep the professor part of me contented -- until academic year 2010 --11. I have already asked the provost to schedule me to teach again. I already know the topic of the course: leadership.

Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.

What Was I Thinking?

Note: This is the second in a three-part series on a college president returning to the classroom.


It seemed like a very good idea: re-enter the classroom to remember what education is truly about, to test out some of my hypotheses about our students and to assimilate new ways to provide them with the best educational experience possible. How hard could it be, I surmised.

Very hard is the answer. Much harder than I thought.

When the first installment of this series appeared, some readers commented that teaching takes time -- both actual time (in and out of the classroom) and psychic time. Presidents have busy schedules, with lots of travel and multiple commitments off campus. The current economic situation has heightened the presidential burdens. Just getting updated on the stimulus package and recent amendments to the Higher Education Act is almost a full-time job.

Despite my best efforts to stay ahead of the students and complete the reading and class preparation well in advance, I find it a challenge. I prepare later than I would like (sometimes the night before, or even the day of, class). Before I actually prepare, I am concerned about my impending lack of preparation!

As if the pre-class anxiety were not enough, I have post-class anxiety when I self-reflect on what I could have done better. I blame my lack of preparation for some of the defects I observe in the course, although to be fair, when I was a full-time academic, I assumed similar blame when I had plenty of preparation time. My wonderful husband assures me that whatever I may be sensing in the classroom, the students are still getting a valuable educational experience. SVC’s provost and a department chair, both of whom sat in on one class, agreed.

Despite the challenges, I have learned a great deal thus far. Indeed, in some respects, I have learned more than I anticipated. Some concrete examples:

Student Interaction and Viral Benefits

I knew that, through teaching, I would get to know students in a different way. I now get e-mails from students regarding assignments, as well as occasional visits and hallway chats; nothing novel here but I like the interaction. The retired college president Roger Martin, who recently lectured on the Southern Vermont campus, expressed that one of the joys he had when he enrolled as a first year student on another campus was the opportunity to connect with students – something he had missed as a president. (Martin’s book, Racing Odysseus, is well worth reading.)

What I underestimated were the viral benefits of my teaching: my students talking about the class, “Leadership and the Role of Gender” to other students and to faculty.

In the short span of time since the semester started, people are chatting about my course, particularly some of the “out-of-the-box” exercises we do during class. One exercise involved giving each student a small, battery-operated flashlight at the end of a discussion on different approaches to problem solving.

They were then assigned to work in groups using the flashlight to demonstrate what we had covered in class.

Some students took the flashlights apart and built models of thinking. Another group drew different designs to demonstrate problem-solving strategies by tracing the flashlight. Two groups could not figure out what to do with the flashlight. After discussing what the groups did (or did not do), I shut off the lights (this is an evening class) and all students immediately turned on their flashlights. I could then make the point that, with a common object (a flashlight) in a well-know setting (darkness), we know what to do with the flashlight. But take a familiar object and use it in an unfamiliar place – and the assignment is more difficult. As leaders, I observed, we need to take known skills (hopefully honed in college) and apply them to new, as distinguished from common, situations – and therein rests the skills of true leaders. Across the campus, a wide range of people had heard about the flashlight exercise.

The flashlights had shed light – literally and figuratively.

Faculty Realities Learned First Hand

Through teaching, I have observed some of our internal collegiate processes at work. Some of what we do, well-intentioned to be sure, is hard on faculty. For example: we ask for communication between professors and the athletic department as a way of giving coaches a sense of how all our student-athletes are doing in their classes. This is done via email with an attached form that must be completed and returned to the athletic adviser. When I received the form for a student in my class, I thought about the professors who get many of these forms. (To be honest, I took advantage of my position and had my assistant complete the details after I gave her the basic information.) There is no way a president can appreciate processes in this way, were he or she not teaching.

I had an epiphany recently about faculty adoption of service learning initiatives in the classroom. I appreciate the importance of linking student classroom learning to the larger community; such connections enhance the educative experience on a number of levels and provide an important message about giving back. Yet, six weeks in, I realized I had not formally integrated a service learning component into my own class!

I became poignantly aware of the omission at a service learning conference at which I was giving the keynote address, and an attendee observed that part of the difficulty of service learning is convincing faculty to employ it in their classroom. What benefit there would be, she observed, if there were clear signaling from the top.

This was one of those “yipes” moments when I realized I had missed the opportunity to model an educative approach within my own class. Initially, I decided to remedy that defect immediately. But, as our wise provost observed, a service learning component is not precisely that kind of thing that one just adds into the mix after the fact; it requires much more thought. That said, I am adding a piece to the course this semester where the class and I will take our lessons on leadership into the larger community -- sharing our strategies with some local women’s organizations. Lesson learned: making service learning a true piece of the curriculum requires more than just passive endorsement. It requires not just “talking the talk but walking the walk.”

Meeting the Challenges of Creating Critical Thinkers

Perhaps the biggest insights I have had revolve around how to improve our students’ critical thinking skills. Many people, within our institution and elsewhere, lament that college students are not well prepared, suggesting that they do not have sufficient reading comprehension and analytic skills. It is easy for us to blame this on a lack of preparation in high school. The old saw goes something like: “I teach the material; they just don’t learn it.”

I believe that there is no real purpose in blaming high schools (unless one is planning to return to a high school setting and seek reform there.) Instead, we need to find better ways to teach today’s students.

Until I started teaching this semester, my experience for the past two decades was limited to graduate education. Based on my experience with undergraduates so far, though, I am more firmly convinced that students can develop critical thinking skills.

Finding strategies for enabling students to delve deeper is not easy. It calls for determining, often creatively, how to communicate and share material. I have already tried several strategies, mostly drawn from legal education; some have worked better than others.

In a recent exercise I call “myth rebutting,” students proffered answers to questions that call for data (usually guessing) and then I proffered the actual answers. We then discussed the disparities between what they perceived and reality, probing the rationale (plentiful) for the gaps. In this instance, we discussed why the data revealed such a low number of women leading Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies, non-profit organizations, and colleges and universities.

What we did next was “call the question,” writing a paragraph, individually and collectively, that sought to provide nuanced and multifaceted answers to why the data were what they were and why the student perceptions failed to mimic reality. What emerged was an approach – a structure – for responding thoughtfully to questions, an approach to thinking more deeply about issues.

We made real progress, and we’ll keep working at it.

I could go on sharing more of the more plentiful lessons learned but it is time to stop writing and prepare for class. Once again, I am not yet prepared.

Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.


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